An unwritten essay about an unfinished book: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

I wrote these notes and essay passages about David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King in September 2012 and completely forgot about them. It seems somehow appropriate to the book as we have it that I just present them as they stand, and hope that they elucidate some points of interest.

Not a description but try and tease out some themes that interest you

Embryonic outline:

2 Broad arcs:

  1. Paying attention, boredom, ADD, Machines vs. people at performing mindless jobs.
  2. Being individual vs. being part of larger things – paying taxes, being “lone gun” in IRS vs. team player.

“. The Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is openly hostile to the notion of private information,”

One has to ask oneself how much the unfinishedness of The Pale King differs from the studied unfinishedness of Infinite Jest; it has, or works toward, the same ‘open form’ of its predecessor; inclusive and various without resorting to Shandyism. One note says the book is “a series of setups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens” (p.548) and another that “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen” (p546); in this specific instance the note says “There is no bomb. It turned out that an actual load of nitrate fertilizer has been blown up.” – but in the text as we have it nothing at all blows up; which might point to some editorial excision, but whether or not this non-happening is supposed to not happen or happen, we are evidently meant to apprehend much of the book as bethetic or anticlimactic. It is anticlimactic in a different way, however, to Infinite Jest, where the petering ending nonetheless points us back to it’s real climacteric right at the start, with Hal Incandenza’s spectacular breakdown, a vivid setpiece which, if it had been placed at the end rather than the start of the text, might have saved a lot of frothing and disappointment from readers accustomed to more conventionally structured novels more given to courting a melodrama that David Foster Wallace intuitively shies away from or subverts. Infinite Jest turns out to be circular, or rather, a Moebius strip where we jump from one year to another within a finite number; The Pale King is more like a snapshot of a moment, with pictures of previous time within it that we never directly experience in the same way.

Take the intriguing note “David Wallace disappears – becomes creature of the system” – it is not clear that this happens in the text as we have it. We must infer that he, who “favors upgrading IRS computer systems” (p546), would have been lost his individuality, perhaps even his humanity, which is something Stecyk, who “wants to preserve human examiners” (ibid.), would be wary of.

The “substitute” explains to the class of trainees that the accounting profession is “in fact, heroic” (p230), that “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is” (p231). The substitute’s notion is a form of contemporary Stoicism bastardized into Heroism, or an inverted Nietzsche celebrating the Untermensch. As he has it, its lack of interest to anyone is one of the elements that makes fortitude truly heroic. [how do they react? how are we supposed to react?]

In his “Author’s Foreword” (which is, of course, Chapter 9), David Wallace essays on “Why we recoil from the dull” (p.87) speculating that “dullness is associated with psychic pain” because it fails to distract us from “some other, deeper type of pain that is always there”. This might point to any number of psychoanalytic staples from the agony of birth (or life) to the trials of the mirror phase to the loss of the father or of the self or the abiding need for love; it isn’t spelled out, perhaps because it is unknowable; the unanswerable question of why we can never be content, or happy. One man, however, finds such contentment or happiness, effectively Bliss-out-of-Boredom, or would do had DFW managed to include it in the novel; all we have is a note that “Drinion is happy” because he has ridden out the most crushing boredom, where “a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.” (p.548). This is a wonderful conceit, and a tantalisingly euphoric transmogrification of the novel’s boredom theme and one wonders how it would have played out had it been fleshed out in the story.  With regard to the addressing the abiding pain that boredom makes us aware of rather than distracting us from, it might be speculated that Drinion’s triumph over boredom might be akin to ‘facing up to one’s demons’; an actual vindication of the psychoanalytical process.  If we find in Infinite Jest no such resolution, only complete breakdown and irresolution, we might speculate that in The Pale King we might have been offered a glimpse of what it might be like to conquer the darkness. Regrettably, the darkness conquered David Foster Wallace and thereby vanquished the possibility of such a glimpse, which is the most tragic aspect of the book – that its author had gotten closer, before being overtaken again by that darkness.

In Chapter 19, a dialogue about civic society and individualism involving two unnamed speakers, there is a marvellous passage about the “fugue of evaded responsibility” (p138) whereby “corporations … allow for individual reward without individual obligation”;; the whole chapter is remarkable in itself as a stand-alone dialogue but within the context of the book it forms a set-piece exploring the central theme of being an individual and being part of a larger entity; the relationship between the two, the conflict. [more on this, unpack]

Elsewhere, David Wallace says “as both you and I know, there is no longer any kind of clear line between personal and public, or rather between private vs. performative.” (p.82) with examples including blogs, reality tv, popularity of memoir. He is locating a fundamental problematic of identity – that our individual personalities are composites and without the context of a society could never have existed – in an acutely modern kind of experience, one that is often associated with contemporary America in the Age of Analysis, where we are comfortable with being open about, even expected to be open about, revealing our interior life. It’s interesting he says there “no longer” a separation, leading one to speculate when that separation occurred (the sixties? after the Victorian period?) and of course to question the entire veracity of the notion. It probably works on a broad philosophical level, speaking to the possibility of opening up our interior lives to speculation as never before, but DFW’s work seems to often spin on the axis of our inability to adequately do so, and our self-consciousness about trying.

Sylvanshine had “been studying for the CPA exam for three and a half years. It was like trying to build a model in a high wind.” (p11) Interestingly, Wallace said working on The Pale King was “like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind” (vii)

The itemized landscape of the first chapter concludes “Read these”; this instant might be said to be a reversal of the ‘word made flesh’ – all of these visions in the real world become words, which we are encouraged to read. Which is a nice invitation into the world of the book. But later when Lane Dean Jr reflects at length on the etymology of boredom (p385-6) he refers to L.P. Smith’s positing “certain neologisms as arising from their own cultural necessity—his words, I believe…When the kind of experience that you’re getting a man-sized taste of becomes possible, the word invents itself.” This is all very glancingly attended to, but I believe it reflects a running concern with the nature of reality as it is mediated through, and constructed by, language. The idea that real things become words, they’re not merely signified by words but the word and the thing become consubstantial; and that words in turn feed back into becoming things; this is one of the sources of mental illness; false memory syndrome and other accidents of psychological programming or reinforcement. The psychological technique of “Thought stopping” is one of the things that Sylvanshine dwells on in Chapter 2; in a typical irony he would need to perform thought-stopping to stop thinking about thought-stopping, but he’s too busy worrying. Regardless of whether or not thought stopping is a useful tool to stop the escalation of thoughts leading to a panic attack, the point is that to us as creatures existing in words, the words are in their effect as real as anything real, as any thing.

The IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985 (ix)

“shifting POVs, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities” (ix)

And, as is the case with Infinite Jest, by the end you do see everything in your world through DFW’s eyes, or what you perceive to be his sensibility, as inferred, and everything seems touched.

Ch50 inasmuch as, in a somewhat Orwellian touch, the body and all things are found to be products of or retrospectively created by the system that they entered – a paradox of cause – but echoed in the reinvention of the self in one’s baptismal new social security number upon entering the system – the past is rewritten, the body is rewritten

By extension, your insertion into any new value system rewrites you – a parable for the era of the Born Again? This is explicit in the book’s epigram, from Frank Bidart’s “Borges and I”: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”

83 Neatly mixes up/interinvolves tax, life motivation, work, the present book, the story and DFW himself, the symbol of all these together being The Pale King.

“as both you and I know, there is no longer any kind of clear line between personal and public, or rather between private vs. performative.” p.82 with examples including blogs, reality tv, popularity of memoir.

A central or pivotal comment (given as a remark by Glendenning): “If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.” to which David Wallace adds “one more: boredom.” then for good measure also adds “Opacity. User-unfriendliness.” (84)

“The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)

 “Tedium is like stress but its own Category of Woe” (p17)

 “ will regard features like shifting p.o.v.s, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities, & c. as simply the modern literary analogs of ‘Once upon a time…’ or ‘Far, far away, there once dwelt…’ or any of the other traditional devices that signaled the reader that what was under way was fiction and should be processed accordingly. For as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there’s always a kind of unspoken contract between a book’s author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e., whether it’s made up vs. true.” (74-5)

 “the Service is rife with special jargon and code that seems overwhelming at first but then gets internalized so quickly and used so often that it becomes almost habitual.” (71)

Toni Ware’s own term for sexual assault – “pressed” – is taken up by the narrator, in an example of narrated and narrator bleeding sympathetically together – subjective bias is common enough in fiction. cf p60

On p44 we find Lane Dean’s overbearing religious mother irrupting into the text “That Lane should please please sweetie let her finish” (rather than this being reported in speech). Sometimes it’s more subtle, as with the comic incongruity “There were not any ducks in view.” which we read while Lane is looking at a lake; there’s the implication that there should be ducks, but we don’t know why, because the narration is only partially inside Lane Dean’s sensibility. Sometimes, as is common in the text of Joyce’s Ulysses or in Faulkner, for example, we are not sure where a thought is coming from, and its origin might be ambigous or even untraceable. Take “He frequently had this feeling: What if there was something essentially wrong with Claude Sylvanshine that wasn’t wrong with other people? What if he was simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs? The neurology of failure.” (p16) – is this the author interposing some suggestion of answer to the rhetorical questions preoccuping Sylvanshine. On p14 “Deviation rates, precision limits, stratified sample.” interposes out of nowhere, as if we were listening to a radio play and suddenly another station broke in momentarily. This at least can be explained in terms of the book’s concern with deep immersion in nomenclature. It drips with tax-speak.

A harder-to-trace irruption or authorial intrusion might be found on the very first page of the book “We are all of us brothers” which seems to follow from an oblique associative impulse; as we look around at the landscape, we are reminded that it’s not just land, but that the land is us; we are part of everything; evolutionary holism? A nod to the infrequent but noticeable moments of visionary experience in Wallace’s work, which are there but which are probably left understated so as not to appear tritely magical. We’re on steadier ground if we note that this evolutionary holism I mention is another aspect of the central theme of individual v larger entity; in this case DFW is pointing to nature rather than the revenue service. I don’t know which is the scarier.

The trope of Hell as self-consumption (or self-battle) for Lane Dean p43 not as a lake of fire but as “..two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or no battle..” (also p42 “He kept thinking also of 1 Timothy 6 and the hypocrite therein who disuputeth over words.”) and for Toni Ware p58 “The sun overhead like a peephole into hell’s own self-consuming heart.”

Lane Dean’s experience when “a terrible kind of blankness had commenced falling through him” (p41)

Ch5 about the boy (Leonard?)

Unafraid to at times embrace non-realism or comic realism, as with Ch4 which reports on Blumquist’s having been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right. It’s Pythonesque but has at the same time the tantalizing possibility is that this could actually happen (the horror of that).

Supernatural – Thought Stopping, Shane Drinion’s levitation

The sense of being dropped into a moment – perpetual present of constant interruption – when we find Sylvanshine’s name or a personal dropping out of the text in favour of an immediate “And stood […] holding his effects” (p20) which places you directly there but relies on a sentence on a previous page to complete its sense. One is reminded of the start of Pound’s Cantos, “And then went down to the ship” where grammar is broken to express a sense of eternal continuation or perpetual present.



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